I’ve wanted to talk about food on here for some time, however unfortunately Garzón and Camps have kept me busy for a few months. However, now that Garzón’s in The Hague and the PP keep trying to slow down the Gürtel case, I have time for an entry about Spanish cuisine, but from an altogether different, less eulogistic and more analytical angle than the usual. For me, the best and worst aspects of the internationally renowned Spanish cuisine are both one and the same thing: it all comes down to attitude.
It’s not unusual to read a board displaying the menu of the day outside a restaurant and read ‘meat’, ‘fish’ or ‘ham and peas.’ The Spanish have a refreshingly unpretentious attitude (in the main) to writing menus and serving food. If it says ‘ham and peas’ it will definitely just be ham and peas, if it says ‘meat’, it will certainly be meat and almost definitely some form of potatoes served with a sliver of red pepper. They don’t feel the need to add extra garnishes or pretend that it’s something it’s not (although invariably there are exceptions, such as brazo de gitano which means a type of swiss roll, not a real gypsy’s arm.)
Similarly, Spanish food is accessible. Everyone goes out to eat and there are menus of the day to fit everyone’s budget. Eating out is not an elitist activity, but rather an everyday occurrence, although it’s been undoubtedly curtailed by the current recession.
Likewise, many of the dishes emphasise their local and regional roots, using typical ingredients and cooking in a traditional fashion, from the cheapest jaunts right up to the gourmet temples of food. There is a great deal of pride in the local cuisine, the regional dishes and what mother cooks. It’s a strong, traditional attitude, rooted in pride and recognition of quality and unpretentiousness.
Nevertheless, this attitude does have its negative aspects. I’ve experienced a certain superiority complex towards the cuisine of other countries around the world, which could be due in part to the lack of foreign influences on Spanish food over the last two hundred years or so. The purity of the cuisine is therefore part of its weakness. People are unwilling to experiment with foreign ingredients or different techniques because Spanish food is inherently better. At only the mention of Chinese, Japanese or Indian food, many of my students (and not just the teenagers and youngsters) turn up their noses in disgust. This ignorant attitude can be frustrating at times because there is definitely space to maintain the strong, traditional roots of Spanish food whilst embracing the different cuisines around the world and what they have to offer.
Many Spanish continue to cling to the idea of the Mediterranean diet, in denial of the fact that what people eat and the way in which they do it is changing rapidly towards North American and northern European models. Meat consumption is very high (when according to the Mediterranean diet it should be low) and fruit consumption is falling (enough such that the state has been worried enough to introduce a new policy in schools to try and increase fruit consumption.) Many of my students, however, use the term Mediterranean diet as a synonym for Spanish food, thereby mytholigising its meaning. In other words, it’s a diet that not many follow, although they insist that they do in addition to brandishing it as a symbol of national pride.
How is Spain changing towards more North American and northern European models? One of the problems is that people don’t realise how fast food trends are changing. Every year there are more and more ready meals available in the supermarkets. The tradition of passing down the knowledge of how to cook and prepare food is being lost. There are many people in their 20’s and 30’s who don’t know how to cook, and if we compare these two trends with the situation of Britain, it’s easy to see where Spain could end up.
Similarly, the main extra-curricular activity of my students, and many others around Spain, is to go out every Saturday evening with their friends. In my experience, virtually all of them go to McDonalds or Burger King to eat, which is very sad when the variety of options available in Oviedo are taken into account. Whether it’s because that’s the image of youth culture that they are sold by advertising and American series’ on the television or because they want to rebel against traditional patterns of Spanish dining, I have no idea.
In sum, Spain has a dialectical attitude when it comes to food. The richness, variety and quality of the cuisine are unquestionable, in addition to the accessibility and unpretentiousness. What is worrying is the way in which food culture is changing and the denial that this change is actually taking place. What will be the result of this dialectic, no one knows, but I hope there will be a realisation of the dangers and that Spain will continue to retain its strong culinary traditions whilst acknowledging the quality and value of other cuisines in the decades to come.